SEVEN MONTHS AGO, Connie Francis tried to kill herself.
She came to that after a two-decade odyssey that sounds like a made-for-television movie. In fact, she's now talking with people about making her life into a motion picture.
The sleeping pills that she swallowed that February night came long after she was the 19-year-old with the sweet plaintive voice, part pain, part pretty, who sang "Who's Sorry Now?" It sold a million and a half records and catapulted her to teen idoldom, late 1950s style. She was 20 ("Introducing Connie Francis" read her credit) in "Where the Boys Are," crooning the title song that became a hit and then a symbol of its age. She was a symbol of her age, too. There were Connie Francis fan clubs. You could buy Connie Francis paper dolls, tall and voluptuous. (She's short and slender.) There have been 80 million Connie Francis records sold.
Then there were the clubs, the singing at New York's Copacabana, the Las Vegas show dates, the Las Vegas marriages (she's been married three times), the crazy people -- a gun-toting woman who showed up at one of Connie Francis' performances after having told friends she wanted to kill the singer.
And then there was the horror -- her 1974 rape in a Westbury, N.Y., motel, the years of seclusion, her brother's murder in 1981, the loss of her voice, her obsession with the victims' rights movement, and two brief periods of involuntary commitment in 1983 when she was institutionalized by her father.
Today, she is on medication -- lithium, she says -- and sees a psychiatrist regularly.
And she's written a book about herself. She really wrote it, she says, having spurned the attempts of two ghostwriters. It will be published later this month by St. Martin's Press (an 18-city book tour is planned) and she's calling it "Who's Sorry Now?"
She also plans another comeback. "I feel more at home on the stage than at any other time," she says. "I enjoy myself only when I'm working."
Where the boys are,
Someone waits for me.
A smiling face,
A warm embrace,
Two arms to hold me tenderly. 1961, Aldon Music Inc.
There is something bittersweet about that song and the singer.
"I was supposed to do that movie -- the remake of it," Francis says of the recent "Where the Boys Are -- 1984," a film roundly denounced by critics. She would have played a nightclub owner and sung the song. "When I saw the script I nearly had a convulsion. I couldn't believe it. It's R-rated, and today for something to be R-rated it really has to be pretty raunchy . . . I didn't want to do any movie that I couldn't have my son go and see." Her adopted son, Joey, is 10.
She is 45 now, attractive and slender. She is immaculately tailored, her hair tightly coiffed, her long nails lacquered red; she wears fashionable costume jewelry, nothing real. She once had a diamond bracelet lifted off her wrist when she was surrounded by a crush of autograph seekers. "I've had 10 major robberies," she says. "In London, they came to our rooms and chloroformed us. I can't get insurance anymore."
Her hairdresser, Jairo Jimenez, who travels with her, looks like a parody of Hollywood hairdressers in his white suit, white shirt open to midchest, curly hair and dark tinted glasses. He is gracious, attending to Francis' needs and those of her visitors. He talks devotedly about her.
She pokes gentle fun at her life outside work. "I have regrets," she says, then deadpans, "that I picked the wrong people. I had to go to Las Vegas to shop for two husbands, which was a fatal error." Her first was a Las Vegas publicity agent. ("I got married in 1964 because I wanted to have sex.") Her second was a Las Vegas hairdresser. Francis speaks warmly only of the third, Joseph Garzilli.
"In the past couple of years since I went back to work," she says, "I would walk out on stage and the men would yell -- all ages and sizes -- 'We love you, Connie! We love you!' I would say, 'Where were you when I married those three other stiffs?' "
Connie Francis grew up in Newark ("But don't hold that against me.") and has been performing since the age of 4, shuttling to New York three times a week during her teen years to perform in a show called "Star Time."
"I played the accordion when I was little," she says. "It was a prerequisite for being Italian and a girl," she adds, straight-faced. "In 1967, we had a big flood in the basement and the accordion drowned. I threw a big party," she laughs.
"To write about the early days and the Cinderella years was very easy," she says. "It was just a happy life up until a certain stage. To write about my brother's death and the rape incident that I experienced was very difficult. I went to Las Vegas for two weeks and locked myself in a room and wrote. It wasn't as difficult to write about the rape as it was to write about my brother. The rape I've lived 1,000 times in my mind. But to write about my brother's death was very difficult. We were very close."
She has already spoken openly about the rape. Police found her in her room, naked, bound and gagged, tied to an overturned chair. She had been terrorized at knife-point for 2 1/2 hours, raped and robbed of her mink coat and some jewelry. "He put a knife mark in my neck," she says. "I had bruises all over my body, lacerations all over my body. I didn't have a dime with me. That's why he threatened to kill me."
The intruder has never been caught.
He didn't know whose room he was breaking into, Francis says. "He knew my name after I mentioned it," she says, "but he didn't recognize me."
She spent the next seven years secluded in her Essex Fells, N.J., home or her place in Hallandale, Fla. "I vegetated and rusticated and ruminated," she says. "I didn't do very much of anything. I spent my time helpless more than anything, because I was nonfunctional."
At first, she discussed the assault with no one. "Not even my husband." She was "a zombie," she says, engulfed by depression. "I was really angry from the letters I received -- thousands of letters I received from rape victims. I got angry about a lot of things not being done for them."
In 1976, she won a jury settlement of $2.5 million after arguing that the motel rooms had inadequate door locks. She had sobbed during the trial, testifying that she and her husband had had no sexual relations for 2 1/2 months after the rape and that her marriage was nearly ruined. (She eventually got $1.6 million.)
In 1977 she had surgery to correct a debilitating post-nasal drip, a result of cosmetic surgery to narrow her nose 10 years before. After the second surgery, she discovered her voice was gone. She had three more operations and struggled to regain her voice.
"When I was in Florida, I would bring a coach down from New York for $1,500 for a couple of days each week to work with me," she says. "I had never taken a lesson in my life . . . And every time he left, I would wind up in bed for two days, so depressed over not being able to sing anymore that after a while I thought, 'Forget about it. Why should I do this to myself?' So I stopped singing altogether."
Still struggling, she suddenly faced the most devastating trauma of all. In 1981, George Franconero, her younger brother, was gunned down gangland-style in New Jersey. Franconero, a former Essex County assistant prosecutor who was briefly a law partner in former governor Brendan Byrne's office in 1973, had been convicted in a land fraud scheme and was facing a prison sentence. Federal officials speculated at the time that Franconero's death may have been ordered by underworld figures in retaliation for his cooperation in the prosecution of West Paterson, N.J., Teamsters Union officials.
"I was afraid my mother would have a nervous breakdown," Francis says. "I was concerned about her and about my son. And as soon as I began thinking a little more about other people after my brother's death, I started feeling better myself and wasn't quite as down. So when they came to me with the idea of writing a book, I was more open to it."
Her voice still gone, she refused to listen to her old records. "I threw all of them out," she says. But a fan sent her a tape cassette of all of her performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show." "I finally got up the courage to play it," she recalls. "I wanted to hear it so badly, yet I didn't want to hear it because it was depressing. Then I finally played it, and the next day I started to sing. Driving into New York, I just started to sing along with the radio and I thought, 'I can sing! I can sing!' I pulled over to the side of the road and called my manager and my father."
As part of her comeback in 1981, Francis returned to Westbury for a performance at the Westbury Music Fair, a half-mile from the motel where she was raped. Midway through her first number, "I Will Survive," she forgot the lyrics. "Forgive me," she said. "I'm rusty and klutzy. I'm starting all over again." The packed house roared with applause.
However, her public comeback included not just singing but lobbying for victims' rights. In a short time it became an obsession. She had gone from withdrawal to overdrive.
"It's the only thing I ever discussed on television," she says. "I did a tour to promote my appearances and my records and I didn't even talk about those things. All I would talk about is crime. I blew a million and a half dollars."
Francis says she spent her entire court settlement on her work for victims and their advocacy organizations. She paid for "all kinds of things. Traveling for crime. Having pamphlets printed up. All kinds of expenses. And I thought I was going to tackle everything all by myself and make a positive difference. It became an obsession and I drove everyone around me crazy. And I drove myself crazy, too."
As a result, she says, "I alienated some friends, cultivated a ton of enemies. All kinds of people -- political people, newspaper people . . . There were people who promised to do certain things legislatively and didn't . . . I would call, personally, on the phone and say, 'Incidentally what are you doing for me on . . .' In other words, I wasn't a singer anymore."
In August 1983, her father, George Franconero, committed her to a psychiatric hospital in Dallas. She stayed four days before she got herself out. Last October, her father had her taken from her Florida condominium and placed in another private psychiatric hospital in Florida. She stayed a few weeks, she says.
"I was looking to get out every day with lawyers," she says. "It was a constant battle . . . It was a disaster for me. There were some strange people there. People were coming in and out of my room all day. Autographs."
She describes the whole time as "a crazy part of life for me. I really was off the wall." Her problem was diagnosed as manic depression, she says.
She closeted herself in her New Jersey home, sinking into depression and deep resentment over her father's actions. "I have had a tremendously close relationship with my father for so many years now," she says, "that it was a very hard thing for me to reconcile. I felt betrayed . . . I think I just got to a low enough point that I just didn't have any desire to live again."
She swallowed sleeping pills one night and went to bed. Her housekeeper came into her room the next morning, realized something was wrong and called the emergency squad. "I came within half an hour of losing my life."
Then, Francis checked herself into a psychiatric clinic in New Jersey "and just thought out my life . . . It had been such a long, embattled life for 10 years. I just felt at the end of that rope. And," she says pausing, "I'm glad it didn't work."
She has put this behind her now: "I feel mentally healthier today that I ever have in my life." She has also put behind her the victims' rights movement. "I will leave it up to the professionals from now on," she says, "and just worry about singing some pretty tunes."
But she can't find the right tunes. She tells her assistant, Pat Niglio, that she wants an up-tempo song (for her recent appearance on the television show "Onstage America.")
"I started a fan club for Connie when I was in junior high," says 35-year-old Niglio, who is low-key and businesslike. "The first time I met her, she was very sweet to me. She spent a couple of minutes talking to me. Then I went to work for her."
That was about 20 years ago.
Francis' entourage and support system include a number of longtime fans. When she was writing her book, she would regularly ask a fan who kept an extraordinarily detailed scrapbook of her career to recall important dates in her life. "Fans of mine throughout the country actually had my life chronicled on a daily basis almost," Francis says.
"Pat is a walking encyclopedia of information on Connie Francis," she says. "He knows the number of every glossy of me."
"Connie can't remember every song she recorded in all the languages," Niglio says, explaining that he keeps track of them.
Niglio had collected 1,000 photographs of Francis; some he bought from newspapers. "One night at the Copa, she held the chauffeur an hour so she could tear up pictures of herself," says Niglio, "and then throw them down the laundry chute. She doesn't like pictures of herself."
"Well, not the bad ones," Francis says.
She says she has turned down television -- soap operas, "Love Boat" episodes -- and theater. "I said no to a Broadway show . . ." she says. "I was in no condition to do a Broadway show then anyway. But after I heard 'Broadway' I stopped listening. Doing the same thing every night for a year? I'd be bored out of my mind."
She is never apprehensive about performing, she says.
She turns to Jimenez. "Have you ever seen me nervous?"
"Never," he answers.
"Never," she says. "Nobody's ever seen me nervous. It's fun. It's absolutely a ball . . . to have people take beautiful pictures of you, to have your toes and nails done and your hair done, and you're wearing outrageous creations and having the public love you. It's like being Cinderella."